BIG YARN: Meet me in the lobby

BIG YARN: Meet me in the lobby

lobby /'lobi:/n&v 1. a large hall used especially for interviews between MPs and members of the public. 2. a body of persons seeking to influence legislators on behalf of a particular interest. 3. an organised attempt by members of the public to influence legislatorsFor a widespread activity, nobody likes to admit lobbying exists. Not those who undertake it, not those subjected to it, and not those who cannot afford to undertake it. But the truth is everyone wants it. People want to engage the government and inform them of their needs, wants and desires and the government, especially in an election year, needs to listen.

In this election year IT has become a live issue, dragging with it all kinds of baggage from civilian privacy and freedom of speech to the economic future of Australia as a first world nation. In this election year, millions of dollars, both private and public, will be spent on lobbying with regards to the direction of IT.

As executive director of the Internet Industry Association, Peter Coroneos knows just how exhausting lobbying can be. His role requires him to petition legislators on behalf of more than 300 companies and affiliations; a task which he does not take lightly.

"Lobbying is extraordinarily difficult and demanding at the best of times. You have to marry social outcomes with the vagaries and distortions and compromises inherent in the political process," Coroneos said. "You might come to the government with a proposal which is eminently achievable but, because of political forces, is impossible to bring about."

It is a frustration echoed by every advisory board and a necessary evil to keep the system honest, according to Business Software Association of Australia president, Jim Macnamara. "It's an adversarial role out of which comes healthy scrutiny. Hopefully, at the end of the day common senseprevails," he said.

Al all levels the government's track record in technology is littered with instances of legislation lacking in wisdom and often appears to be steered by opportunistic and ideologically driven responses. The Queensland Govern-ment's decision to use SAP as the management tool of choice some years ago is a classic example, effectively locking local developers out of the loop and reinforcing the belief that foreign products are superior to home-grown wares.

Locking Horns

"The Internet is a disruptive technology, and as such it challenges the government's traditional control over the way business and the community at large function," Coroneos said. "Often [politicians] have no idea how hard it will be to enforce the laws they are trying to make."

Citing recent Federal Government initiatives to curb online gambling, Coroneos points out that legislators require assistance when it comes to formulating IT policy as they are not familiar either with the technology they are trying to control, nor with the way it is implemented and used.

"Often legislation is passed, and the Government feels it has acted, the public perceives it has acted, but the reality is the legislation is simply not viable," Coroneos said. "Trying to articulate a rational, responsible, workable set of solutions is often like walking into a minefield."

The obvious place for the Government to seek assistance is from within the industry itself, to walk the high wire of resistance against the self-serving PR machines, especially of the large companies. But it continues to disappoint, showing a repeated inability to sort through the opinions and select the best outcome for Australian IT companies. It is a practice that is quickly eroding credibility and leading to a vigilante attitude within the industry.

Like many, wireless advocate George Bray is disappointed with the Government's use of the data-casting spectrum and the content restrictions placed upon it. He openly condemns the Government for its wishy-washy attempt to break the telco monopoly held by Telstra and is undertaking a trip to remote areas of Australia to flog the benefits of wireless technology. He aims to accelerate the grassroots movement in communities like Surfers Paradise that have established an unlicensed, wireless Local Area Network offering cheap Internet connection at speeds higher than available to most current home users (11Mb per second). Bray's "Tech Trek" is sponsored by the Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association (AIMIA) and a conglomerate of local and multinational vendors that will directly benefit from any success he might have in generating uptake.

Others, such as Alan McElerea,

acting CEO of business software

developer Mincom, believes the days of government dependance on the industry for (potentially biased) advice and direction are coming to an end. "It is time to take the interested but not self-interested advice of the veterans who cut their teeth on IT and have since retired from the business," he said

A sea of voices

Critics aside, the role of industry groups is crucial for smaller local companies that lack the clout individually to make their voice heard. Many in the IT industry fear losing business if they attempt to confront governmental policy.

"It is difficult for individual members to speak out because they fear retribution in terms of failing to win contracts," Coroneos said. "As an industry body, we can advocate their position without them having to stand in the firing line." This may not be enough, according to Adrian Di Marco of intellectual property it generates goes back overseas. At the same time, research and development is based on pure dollar spend, so [Technology One] gets a lower rating for industry development than a multinational."

Although Cuthbertson admits there is a perception that if the government overtly used procurement to boost the local industry some Australian companies would get "fat and lazy" working off government contracts, he contends that this does not have to be the case. "In return for receiving government business, industry has to be forced to commit to further development," Cuthbertson said. "It is in Australia's long-term interests to have more companies with the head offices in Australia - that is to say Australian-owned companies that can use this country as a springboard to the rest of the world."

Di Marco on the other hand believes it is a mandate for the government to ensure Australian businesses succeed on a world market. "The Australian IT industry is not taken seriously because there is not one global brand you can point to that has come out of it." It is this attitude which is forcing Australia into the role of a branch-office economy.

If nothing else, AIIA president Rob Durie said the election year will push these issues to the surface and give a clear indication of what is happening on the IT playing field. Perhaps as the black hole clears, solutions can begin to crystallise.

What they say

"They probably couldn't fund their own group and neither should they. Nortel and Ericsson have been here for years and are just as much an Australian entity as these guys." Sasha Grebe, spokesperson for Senator Alston's office.

"People in the indigenous industry are prepared to sustain the costs of going down to Canberra to be heard, but what they're not prepared to do is their time. We've all done our six days sitting on advisory boards but after repeated attempts of not being heard, you give up." Adrian Di Marco, CEO, Technology One.

"If Australian organisations feel their opinions are not being represented strongly enough within the existing groups they need to make their voice louder within the structures that already exist, not fragment into new groups." Nick Cuthbertson, MD, Protech.

On the introduction of parallel importing on software"This is a direct policy to help the smaller players get products faster and more cheaply."

Sasha Grebe, spokesperson for Senator Alston's office.

"It's bullshit. It doesn't make any difference to the local industry. [The government] is not on the same planet and has no idea what the industry faces." Adrian Di Marco, CEO, Technology One.

"It will increase piracy and I can't see how it will decrease prices. If you convert dollars at the current rate, Australia sells under US prices except on some highly customised packages . . . Vendors ship products at exactly the same time. Jim Macnamara, President, Business Software Association of Australia.

On the government's grasp of IT

"We brought IT&T under the one umbrella because it is hard to interact across portfolios. Labor wants to split it again." Sasha Grebe, spokesperson for Senator Alston's office.

"There's no such thing as an IT&T industry; we have software and hardware, products and services. You can't come up with broad-brushed policies to fix everything, you need to focus on each of those industries." Adrian Di Marco, CEO, Technology One.

"I don't think either [government] party has an adequate understanding of IT&T, which in itself is a major concern." Jim Macnamara, President, Business Software Association of Australia.

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